Thursday, July 23, 2009

At the tail end

My last night in Paris was spent with my old host family at their gorgeous home in the bottom of the 15th. And by home, I meant house, a beautiful one wrapped around a stone-lined courtyard with one tall leafy tree, perfect for outdoor picnics and dinner parties. Since I stayed with the family during the fall semester, I didn't get to experience many of those, but my host mom had the outdoor table and flowering potted plants set out when I arrived at 8h for dinner.

After a lovely meal, where she gently corrected my table setting technique and encouraged me to have seconds and thirds, we all sat around outside chatting, while the boys (3 of them) slowly disappeared one by one--there were girls waiting for them somewhere outside the dark green front gate.

After the last had disappeared, I realized I'd better head out too, if I was going to catch the last bus back to the apartment where I was staying. I felt out of sorts on the bus ride home, a cocktail of contemplation and reflection. So I did the only thing that I could think of.

I went straight back to the apartment, turned on my computer and went pretend shopping on Amazon...except I actually ordered a couple of things. Two cookbooks to be exact: Farmhouse Cookbook and French Farmhouse Cookbook, both by my former chef Susan Herrmann Loomis. I know, I know, I am SO predictable.

I figured that I needed a way to help make the transition back to the States, and besides, these are really good cookbooks. Okay, I'll stop justifying my purchases now. Instead, let me pass along a recipe from one of them. It's a luscious, moist, lightly spiced cake flecked with tart squares of rhubarb. We're at the tail end of the season now, so hurry up and get to the farmer's market so you won't have to wait a whole year to enjoy it!

Rhubarb Cake
Adapted from Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Herrmann Loomis

2 cups diced fresh rhubarb
1 1/2 cups sugar
8 Tbs. (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups plus 2 Tbs. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup plain yogurt
3/4 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter a 7 x 12-inch glass baking dish (or other non-reactive baking dish, as the rhubarb can react with some metals).

Combine the diced rhubarb and 1/4 cup of the sugar in a small bowl, stir and set aside.

Mix the butter with the remaining 1 1/4 cups sugar in a large bowl until pale yellow and almost fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and mix well.

Sift the flour, baking soda and spices together into a medium-sized bowl or piece of parchment paper.

Combine the yogurt and buttermilk in a small bowl.

Add the dry ingredients in thirds to the butter mixture, alternating with buttermilk/yogurt mixture, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Stir in the rhubarb and sugar mixture. The batter will be fairly thick at this point.

Spoon the batter into the prepared baking dish and bake until the cake is golden and puffy and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 40-50 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Yields about 16 small pieces.

Note: Because of the yogurt in this cake, the top will get progressively softer the longer you keep it. Not a bad thing, believe me, but something to keep in mind.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Baking improv

I love following recipes.

I do, I admit it. That feeling of flipping through a cookbook's pages, searching for that one recipe to catch your eye, when everything falls into place and you have (nearly) all of the ingredients on hand. You find yourself fervently hoping that this recipe will be another one to keep marked, to file away into your "Must Make Again" folder, not one of those meh dishes that are always so disappointing.

One of those recipes, the good kind, I mean, landed in my lap via Miss Molly, and comes courtesy of the magnificent Edna Lewis. In fact, I've directed you to this recipe before, and if you haven't already made it, then I suggest you hop to it immediately!

While I am a devoted recipe follower (except with S&P measurements. Who measures that? Those are more guidelines anyway, right?), but I do love to make things up when it comes to cooking pasta or stir-frying or things like that. I'm willing and happy to throw different spices in, play around, because with cooking, you can taste and adjust and readjust and then readjust some more. Now, baking, on the other hand...well, you kind of have one shot and then that's it.

Which is why I ALWAYS follow the recipe when I bake. I do not adjust, I try not to substitute (unless we're talking nuts or dried fruit), I follow orders. There is nothing, and I mean nothing more disappointing than a mediocre baked good.

So you can imagine my surprise yesterday when I felt that irresistible pull towards the kitchen, saw my hands reach for flour, sugar and butter and started clicking through my favorite food blogs for some baking inspiration. I wanted something simple and homey and I immediately thought of the Busy Day Cake. However, I didn't have any whole milk on hand, and not even enough skim to make up the difference. I did have yogurt, and that started the wheels a-turning. I remembered a favorite yogurt cake and, with my fingers irresistibly reaching for the eggs and vanilla, decided that I needed to take my first step towards baking independence.

So I subbed in the yogurt for the milk, and since I was feeling outrageous, subbed in some demerera sugar for a quarter of the total amount of sugar called for. Ooooh, shocking, I know. Who knows what I'll do next.

Of course, I would love to be able to regale you with a magnificent success story of my delicious and highly improved cake. And, while the cake is actually quite good, an ideal afternoon tea accompaniment...I think I need a bit more work in the baking improv department. The coarse, cornmeal texture that I so loved in the original was nowhere to be found (could have something to do with me having to cream the butter and sugar by hand), though the flavors were still quite lovely.

Perhaps a cozy sitdown with Harold McGee's treatise is in order, accompanied, of course, by a piece of cake and a cup of tea.